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Florida Man Pleads Guilty To Smuggling Dinosaur Fossils And Agrees To Forfeit Multiple Dinosaur Skeletons

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Thursday, December 27, 2012

Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced that ERIC PROKOPI pled guilty today to engaging in a scheme to illegally import the fossilized remains of numerous dinosaurs that had been taken out of their native countries illegally and smuggled into the United States. As part of his plea agreement, PROKOPI agreed to consent to the forfeiture of a nearly complete Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton (the “First Bataar”), which was looted from Mongolia and sold at auction in Manhattan for over $1 million. The First Bataar was the subject of a separate civil forfeiture action pending before U.S. District Judge P. Kevin Castel. PROKOPI also agreed to forfeit a second nearly complete Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton, a Saurolophus skeleton, and an Oviraptor skeleton, all of which had been in his possession and were recently recovered by the government. In addition, PROKOPI will forfeit his interest in a third Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton believed to be located in Great Britain. All of the fossils are of Mongolian origin. The skeleton of a Chinese flying dinosaur that PROKOPI illegally imported has already been administratively forfeited. PROKOPI pled guilty before U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald L. Ellis.

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said: “Fossils and ancient skeletal remains are part of the fabric of a country’s natural history and cultural heritage, and black marketeers like Prokopi who illegally export and sell these wonders, steal a slice of that history. We are pleased that we can now begin the process of returning these prehistoric fossils to their countries of origin.”

According to the Criminal Complaint, the Amended Civil Forfeiture Complaint, the Information, the plea agreement, and statements made in Manhattan federal court:

PROKOPI owned and ran a business out of his Florida home and is a self-described “commercial paleontologist.” PROKOPI bought and sold whole and partial fossilized dinosaur skeletons. Between 2010 and 2012, the defendant acquired dinosaur fossils from foreign countries and unlawfully transported them to the United States, misrepresenting the contents of shipments on customs forms. Many of the fossils were unlawfully taken from Mongolia in violation of Mongolian laws declaring dinosaur fossils to be the property of the Government of Mongolia, and criminalizing their export from the country.

Aware that the dinosaur fossils had been removed from Mongolia illegally, PROKOPI worked with others to bring these dinosaur fossils into the United States, using false or misleading statements on customs forms concerning their identity, origin, and value. He then sold or attempted to sell these fossils to others.

Among the fossils unlawfully procured, transported or sold in this fashion were the First Bataar and an additional nearly complete Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton (the “Second Bataar”), two Saurolophus skeletons, one of which was sold to the I.M. Chait Gallery in California for $75,000, and two Oviraptor skeletons. The Saurolophus skeleton sold to the auction house was seized in September 2012. The remaining Saurolophus skeleton and the Oviraptor skeletons were recovered from PROKOPI during the investigation.

Tyrannosaurus bataar was a carnivorous dinosaur that lived during the late Cretaceous period, approximately 70 million years ago. The Saurolophus, which also lived during the late Cretaceous period, was a duckbilled, plant-eating dinosaur. The Oviraptor, of the same time period, featured a parrot-like skull.

Earlier, in 2010, PROKOPI imported into the United States the fossilized remains of a small, flying dinosaur from China, by directing another individual to make false claims on importation paperwork.

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PROKOPI, 38, pled guilty today to an Information charging him with one count of conspiracy with respect to the Chinese flying dinosaur, one count of entry of goods by means of false statements with respect to the Mongolian dinosaurs, and one count of interstate and foreign transportation of goods converted and taken by fraud. PROKOPI faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison on the conspiracy count, a maximum of two years on the entry of goods by means of false statements count, and a maximum of ten years on the interstate transportation of goods converted and taken by fraud. In addition, PROKOPI has agreed to forfeit the proceeds of his offense, including but not limited to, the First Bataar, the Second Bataar, any and all interest in the Tyrannosaurus skeleton believed to be in Great Britain, the Saurolophus and Oviraptor skeletons that had been in PROKOPI’S custody, and any and all other fossil parts of Mongolian origin that PROKOPI brought into the country between 2010 and 2012. For each of the three counts in the Information, PROKOPI faces a maximum fine of $250,000 or twice the gross gain or loss from the offense. PROKOPI is scheduled to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein on April 25, 2013 at 10:00 a.m.

Mr. Bharara praised the investigative efforts of the Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Security Investigations.

The criminal case is being prosecuted by the Office’s Complex Frauds Unit. Assistant United States Attorney Martin S. Bell is in charge of the prosecution. The civil forfeiture case is being handled by the Office’s Asset Forfeiture Unit. Assistant United States Attorneys Sharon Cohen Levin and Martin S. Bell are in charge of the forfeiture case.

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